Changing Bandwidth

Stephanie Taylor takes stock of Wizz Air’s success on board its newest aircraft.

Christopher Buckley, executive vice-president for Africa, Europe and Asia Pacific at Airbus, explained to attendees that Wizz Air is the first carrier in Europe to receive an Airbus A321ceo configured with 230 seats. Following this delivery, the airline has 26 additional A321ceos on order with the OEM, due for delivery between now and 2018, including a second in December this year and nine in 2016.

wizztipExecutive vice-president of Wizz Air, John Stephenson, told us why the aircraft is a game-changer for the carrier. When entering new markets in Central and Eastern Europe where disposable income is still low, he noted, very cheap fares are necessary to stimulate demand.

Stephenson continued, “A321ceos offer 10% lower unit costs on top of other A320 family aircraft, which already offer some of the lowest unit costs in the industry. This is what’s enabling Wizz Air to grow aggressively while still passing benefits onto passengers.”

But the A321ceo has shown that low fares don’t mean a below-par passenger experience, as demonstrated by the new interior shown below.

When I asked Stephenson why Wizz Air had chosen this year to re-brand the airline, he responded, “The re-branding was us trying to be pro-active. We’d had the original brand for ten years and while some companies have had the same brand for 100 years, in this day and age we don’t think we’re in that kind of market any longer. You have to stay ahead – you don’t want to be changing your brand when you feel you need to, you need to be thinking, ‘what is the brand for the next ten years?’

“It was the right decision,” Stephenson went on. “The motivation for us is that we’ve had those immature years, our ‘teen’ years, whereas the next ten years will be our mature years. We think this brand, with the new cobalt blue interiors, comes across as a little bit more professional and a bit more contemporary, so it’s achieving two of our main objectives, which is trying to appeal to a younger audience but also come across as more professional.”

Although the initial A321ceos are due to be based in Budapest, our celebratory journey between Luton and Birmingham was symbolic, and not only because the former location is one of Wizz Air’s busiest airports and the latter has recently become its newest partner. Perhaps more importantly, Simon Hartley, Luton Airport’s business development manager, and Paul Kehoe, the CEO of Birmingham Airport but then Luton’s managing director, were the first people to sign a deal with Wizz Air together back in 2005.

Furthermore, Birmingham is in the heart of the ‘Midlands Engine’, a region in which manufacturing is central to the economy and where there are about 25 companies currently supporting the creation of Airbus aircraft parts.

Standing in Birmingham Airport’s smart International Pier, Kehoe announced his hopes that Wizz will soon become Birmingham’s biggest airline. Since the carrier began operations there six or seven weeks ago, he stated, 12,000 extra passengers had already passed through the airport. He estimated this number would grow to 150,000 Wizz Air passengers in 2016. It wouldn’t be surprising if the carrier hit this target. In the first half of the fiscal year ending 31 March 2016, Wizz Air carried 10.7 million passengers, a 20% increase in traffic over the same period in fiscal year 2015, and its load factor grew to 90.7%.

When I quizzed Stephenson – who has been with Wizz Air for nine years and is soon to be appointed to the board of directors – on whether the airline’s aims had always been so ambitious or whether they had surprised themselves with such rapid success, he responded, “I was at easyJet for nine years and I went through the same process with them. I joined when they had two aircraft and when I left they had 150, so I knew it was possible and I felt that Central and Eastern Europe had that potential to grow, but looking back the company has achieved far more than even I expected.”

wizzdessert“The main challenge really is, again, going from the immature years to the mature years,” averred Stephenson. “I think when you go from 0-50 aircraft, if you ever come into a situation where growth is a challenge you can always roll your sleeves up, work harder and resolve issues that way – you can wing it, if you like. But, when you go from 50 to 150 aircraft everything has to be planned that much further in advance. You need to find pilots for 100 aircraft, which is very different to finding pilots for 10 aircraft. That’s required us to look at having our own simulator three or four years in advance, we also have our own hangar now for the A321 – we couldn’t suddenly have an A321 turn up and have nowhere to put it. Then there are cadet schools for pilots – we have to make sure we’re contributing to the pool of pilots, not just waiting for the industry to deliver what we need. We have to change the industry instead. Really the key change we’ve been seeing as we’ve been growing is the changing bandwidth to allow us to achieve more.”

Speaking of ‘band’ and ‘width,’ the day’s entertainment was provided by the Kodaly Philharmonic Orchestra based in Debrecen (which is about to become Wizz Air’s second base in Hungary). Saying a few words at the press conference, the orchestra’s artistic director, Dániel Somogyi-Tóth, joked about how he wasn’t one of the people playing on board the celebratory flight as his instruments are the piano and the organ.

He rounded off the event by explaining how although Debrecen was a huge air force base during the second world wars, it was left empty 25 years ago, so Wizz Air was doing the city a favour by re-writing history and bringing it back to life. With that, he wished the airline the same dynamics, harmony and power as the orchestra, and we boarded our flight back to London Luton to the sounds of renowned Hungarian composers.

With so much to be proud of, it’s understandable that this media day was full of sentiment and symbolism. Here at LARA, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish Wizz Air the very best of luck as it embarks on its next ten, mature years of operations.

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